Why I Apply to Artist Residencies Knowing I Might Not Get In
Each year, Artsmith asks accomplished professionals in the arts to serve on our Peer Review Panel to adjudicate artist residency applications. And each year, the Peer Review Panel faces tough decisions about which artist projects or processes to support with an invitation to be a guest of the coming year's artist residency. I don't envy the panel having to choose. The artists who apply are talented, hard-working, committed to their artistic practices, and could genuinely benefit from a week of uninterrupted time creating new work in the San Juan Islands. Each year, many worthy and qualified applicants learn they were not selected for a residency this time. It's the part of my (also voluntary) job as executive director I stress about the most. If only we could afford to give residencies all year long, to everyone who applies.
As an artist who applies to residencies, I know full well what it's like to submit, hope, and wait for an answer. Hedgebrook has turned me down three times now, but I know they've also selected other deserving applicants, which eases the disappointment. Sometimes I think, 'This is my last Hedgebrook application,' and later change my mind. Why? It's not because of some determination to get in. It's simply that I know how much those application fees help support valuable programs. I apply as a donation. It just so happens that my donation comes with a chance for a fabulous artist residency. Now, when I get the news that I wasn't selected, I don't feel bad because I don't expect it. Maybe this is the wrong attitude to have. Maybe it lacks the kind of determined confidence needed to make it as a writer or artist. On the other hand, knowing how the ever-changing makeup of the Artsmith Peer Review Panel affects the selection of residency fellows each year, I understand that being selected or not selected is not a cut & dried sanction of one's work or level of artistry. The reality is, these things are always somewhat subjective. I've gotten into a few artist residencies and been awarded a few prizes and grants. I would never be so arrogant to believe that acceptance means I was among the best, only that my particular project appealed to a particular reviewer. The element of luck.
The donation and the chance for a residency aren't the only reasons I apply to residencies like Hedgebrook. There is a much greater benefit, which I receive regardless of whether my application is accepted. By taking time to think honestly about my intentions and process for my work, I gain clarity, direction, depth of understanding, and a richer perspective that enriches the work. When I first applied to Playa, for example, it helped me articulate why taking time to sketch forces me to make closer observations, and also explore the idea of hibernal states in my poetry and the life-cycles and ecosystems around us, to understand that the distinction between death as a final state and winter hibernation as a stage in a process, helped me understand why poetry about death is not a final state, but a moment in a grieving (and therefore growing) process. I sort of grokked this on an intuitive, artistic level, but not as something fundamental to my work and way of thinking at the time. When I applied to Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, I had no idea how to explain my fascination with borders and their arbitrarily imposed limitations, but the application process forced me to put those amorphous ideas into a succinct, understandable form. I'll forever be grateful to Playa and Brush Creek, not just for the residencies they so generously granted me, but for their applications, which guided me toward an important artistic breakthroughs. And I'm just as grateful to Hedgebrook and Willapa Bay AiR and the Millay Colony and Yaddo for asking similar questions and pointing me toward new ways of thinking about my work, the creative process, and my intentions as an artist.
This year, as I prepare my fourth Hedgebrook application, I look forward to giving thought to the questions posed. The application process facilitates an annual assessment of my path of development as a writer and artist. It's not easy. The application doesn't do the work for me, but it pushes me to frankly evaluate and consider my writing, my intentions, my craft, and my willingness to take risks.
I can only hope the applicants for the Artsmith residency also see the benefit of taking the time to articulate their artistic intentions and something of their aspirations for what might come of a residency, and that the process of thinking about those things, in turn, enlightens, or fine-tunes or possibly even nourishes their work.